tv [untitled] September 18, 2011 1:00am-1:30am PDT
life has been dumb luck. and i ended up in a courtroom while waiting for somebody and i've been an artist all my life and i always carry a sketchbook with me. so while i was in this trial which happened to be a good trial. most trials are incredibly boring. i was sketching and thought, i could do this. i found it exciting and i was looking for the -- the emotional moments in the trial of which this particular one, it was rich. and the lawyer said, tony sarah is drama and the law at its best. wears clunky clothes from the thrift, goes to the podium without notes. he's incredibly hard-hitting and perceptive. he drives old clunker cars. he has long hair. he's just the opposite of
everybody's image of a lawyer. and this is the person you want to draw. so that's how it came to be. >> and you spent 17 years on the book. did you follow tony's trials during that time? >> i followed tony in and out of the courtroom for about 10 years. being in tony's presence is a lot like having an overdose of x-rays or something like that. he is intense. once he sort of dumped this book on me -- it was never intended to be my book. it was supposed to be my art and his book. one day he came schlepping boxes and said, here, it's your baby, i don't have time. and i was left crushed under the avalanche of his enormous life that was both fascinating and --
it had so many tributaries to it. i had never written a book before. i had written journals and some articles. i mean, i consider myself a visionary, and my head isn't filled with words, it's filled with pictures. but i'm capable of describing the pictures that i see. so anyway, i began this journey of a thousand miles with one step at a time, the shrapnel of his life all over my floor, and trying to put together this puzzle which became so frustrating that i kept running away from it as much as i embraced it. i finally ended up two states away to kind of get my own perspective on things. and i now live in new mexico. which is where the book ended up being finished. in the meantime, i became a magician in las vegas and just did other things.
[laughing] it was too much. so that's partially why it took 17 years. there's other reasons as well. but, you know, things take their own time. you can't get a mature wine in a week. everything just needs to have its time, too, to develop and to get its flavoring. >> before we go to tony, let me ask john. the book that you wrote was such a commentary on how we train or fail to train lawyers. you know, in the typical method that we teach in law school. that book and that story "the paper chase," what were you saying about the way in which -- i mean, when i went to law school, the emphasis was to become a corporate lawyer. there was very little emphasis placed on being a people's lawyer. or somebody like a tony sarah.
what are your thoughts on that? you've practiced. you're a law professor. recently retired. you've taught at a number of different schools. any thoughts on that? >> well, yes, i have lots of thoughts on it. i went to harvard law school. and believe me, when i was there, there was no legal aid at all. everybody was become a corporate lawyer. there was no question about it. you didn't even think about it. it would never even dawn on anybody. i don't think that anybody knew that there were defense attorneys. you know? anyway, at its heart that little clip said something, i think, because kingsfield is actually violating the very stuff he's teaching. he's teaching contract law, which is all about reciprocity
between people. and there are implicit promises when a law student comes into a classroom. you know? there are implicit promises about respect, about duties, about obligations. kingsfield is violating all of those. so he's not paying attention in the essence of his being to the most important thing that he's doing. does he know a lot of contract law? yes. he's a genius. does he understand the heart of contract law? no. he doesn't. you know? and in that same sense law school is violating the promises in a more general sense that it makes to all of its students. right? think of how crazy this method is. just think about it. by the way, i never call on a student in my classes. and i teach contract law. got lots of students. never called on them. if they want to talk, they have to raise their hand. why? because i don't know if
anybody's got anything to say. i'm not psychic. i can't tell if they can make a contribution. they're the only ones who know. so i say, have you got something to say? and miraculously they raise their hand. [laughing] isn't it incredible? you didn't have to teach it the way i was taught at harvard law school. they were all wrong. you know, it's a very interesting thing. when "the paper chase" came out, by the way -- let me digress. there was an absolute reaction from harvard law school. they said this is the most horrible book that has ever been published. how did this guy get into harvard law school? [laughing] there is some mistake. you know, there were people who wanted to take my diploma away. anyway, in the last 35 years, though, they've mellod out. you know?
they've had me back. they've given me awards. it's incredible. and why is that? is that because they've changed in mir heart? no. it's because the television program gave them so much publicity. i don't mean to be cynical. i do like harvard law school. but come on, guys. >> ok. tony, you dedicated your life to the law and to justice. and you're known to take on the most impossible cases. do you think the justice system works? do you think it has value, at least the value that we seek to attribute to it? where we say in justice for all?
>> nothing meaningful from an attorney comes from the seeded posture. it doesn't mean that anything meaningful comes from an attorney when he rises. let me share in respect to answering your question what some of the after riseles are that are circulating the concept. the lawyers sit in the hall of justice, in the hall, and they converse with their client and other attorneys. and there's a little refrain that is often repeated. and it goes, "the only justice in the hall of justice is in the hall."
so the perception is that justice is not rendered via the path of law or via the path of court. justice, as the native american says, is just us, to it the native establishment. for the native american, the white power system. for us in contemporary time, there is no justice. there is no justice in the courts. and that's sad commentary. and it's mainly predicated, from my perspective, on the swollen power and control that the executive class has now administered on the judicial class. the judicial power, discretion, separateness now has been vastly, vastly inroaded.
the kind of final comment, and i'll put it into contemporary setting, is when it is said the law is fair, it applies to everyone equally. no one is above or below the law. the rule of frame is the street people cannot sleep under the bridge, but the chief of police and the district attorney cannot sleep under the bridge. see how fair it is? it's equal. isn't it? [applause] >> actually, we'll have the d.a. here and the chief of police. so we can ask them that question. [laughing] now, sheldon, you've written
books about a fictional defense attorney. the stories that you tell really get into, i think, the issues and stories of our time. and that's why your books have been so popular. first of all, you know, how did you become a writer? why did you become a writer? and how did you end up writing did a criminal defense attorney in san francisco, of all places? >> i was not told i would follow tony serra. i need to go back and prepare a little more. [laughing] i learned something, too. i guess i better stand up. [laughing] i'm really honored to be here. i'm the toy department. i write novels about the types of cases that lawyers like tony handle. in the daytime i work for a big
law firm of the type that tony probably would not hold in the highest of esteem, but i'm delighted to be here. you know, i think if you talked to most authors, they will tell you that there is something hot-wired into our system that says we need to try to tell a story. there is nothing at all in my background. i am an absolutely accidental writer. there is nothing in my background which suggests i should be writing novels. i grew up in chicago. i write books about san francisco. i studied accounting at the university of illinois. i have been a corporate and securities attorney for 28 years. i've now written seven best-selling novels about murder trials, death penalty cases, and courtroom drama. i have never handled a criminal case in my life. [laughing]
so all of you out there who are thinking of writing novels, there is hope. but i did have this feeling a long time ago, probably from the time i was in high school, that at some point i would like to try to write a novel. and i can't explain why. i do know that when i read "presumed innocent" on an airplane in 1988, i decided that if i ever get around to writing the novel that i probably will never write, it will be a courtroom novel. and scott didn't invent the genre. neither did john grisham. earl stanley gardner was writing courtroom drama in the 1930's and 1940's. "anatty of a murder" came out in 1958. first we have "to kill a mockingbird," which most lawyers and most lawyer authors will tell you is kind of the seminal work of why we got interested. and i started writing a novel as i was approaching my 40th birthday.
i wrote most of it on a ferry going to and from work every day. it took me three years. and that book became "special circumstances," story of a murder in a big law firm. it came out in 2000 and spent seven weeks on "the new york times"' bestsellers' list. so for those of you who have bought my books, i thank you, because now i don't have to practice law full-time anymore. >> but all kidding aside, you know, i think crime novelists and readers of crime novels whether it's lawyer books or whether it's private detectives or cops, you know, in my world i'm like -- unlike tony's, i can control the outcome. i can get justice in my books because i can fix the ending. and i start -- and most authors do i start with the ending. i know who did it, how and why. and by god, when i write that
book, i'm going to make sure justice is served. i think that's why people keep coming back to lawyer books in particular because there's a lot of drama in the courtroom. there's always a murder. there's always big stakes. i've written books about death penalty cases. the stakes don't get any bigger than that. and i think it was important to me to have the center of my books a defense attorney who is the kind of guy, the tony serra's of the world, the person you would call if you got into serious trouble. and there are a lot of corrupt lawyers in my books. there are a lot of nasty people in my books. there are a lot of lawyers who are not portrayed in a particularly favorable way. but the centers of my story are two small time criminal defense attorneys who work on michigan street. and if you get accused of a crime, those are the people you want to call. >> that's my approach. and they're both former public defenders, right? >> yes, they are.
they are both former public defenders here in san francisco. without giving away too much of the story, there may be a return at some point to that particular office where they would, of course, be working for you. >> anytime. [laughing] there seems to be such a huge disconnect, you know, between what you see on tv and even what you read about. most of the tv shows like "law & order" you have a judge who's eminently fair, a prosecutor who is completely ethical, a defense attorney who doesn't show up half the time. these images really result -- i know this as a public defender, because the portrayals of public defenders are usually negative. why? i ask this to the entire panel. why is there such a disconnect between the reality of what really happens in our court and the way that many americans are force fed, really, this
mythology? tony? >> i think in a corrupt society in a perfect society as we have, there has to be a hope or a projected ideal that there is justice, we'll say, in the court system and that there's idealistic lawyers, and there's fair judges, and there's not, you know, indelible bias and prejudice and rac racism, sexis, and all of those things dissipate, you know, when we approach the per diem. it's just like blinding our self. it's a way of taking the placebo instead of the medicine. great reform is required. we're threatened now by
totalitarian tactics, grand juries, informants, mandatory sentencing. it's not very good, my friends. we're losing constitutional rights every day. and i think the way we appease our conscious, those of us who desire, i guess, not to probe and not to reform and not to speak out is we pretend that things have occurred in courts that didn't real liquor. [applause] >> it sounds like all of those things would make great tv or, of course, a great novel. paulette, you've spent so much time in court watching cases. what observations have you made after the hours and hours that you've spent? you're creating not only art, but you're creating a representation of the emotional heart of a case.
what have you gleaned from your experience of watching so many trials? >> well, this is sort of like the fly on the wall, the court artist. i haven't an aperture that is completely open because i'm trying to take in as much as i can possibly absorb. and at the same time i'm very focused on what i'm doing. and i have to remember everything that i'm doing. so as far as the nitpicking particulars of a trial, that goes past me. but what i do see is -- i believe there's a science called cybertronics or something, where you get frozen to death. and that's kind of what it's like. everybody's, for the most part, the lawyers in a trial seem very frozen. i mean a poker match has more emotion in it.
they're holding their card close to their chest. they don't want to really see what's going on. from the artist view, they're holding back whatever is going on. one of the reasons tony excites me as a lawyer is that he's out there. he is transparent. you can see exactly what's going on. you can even see it while it's going on. it's sort of like one of these things you see the digestion taking place because it's all on some transparent piece of, i don't know, behind glass or something. so there's this combination of what is held back and what is sort of scrolled out or spooled out little by little. what i see in court is, of course, the incredible inequities. i tend to have a great soft spot
for people who are not of life of privilege and whose lives are very challenged and who deal with them in the best ways they can. everybody wants, you know, some sort of decency for their family. and everybody''s capable of incredible rage and probably even the urge to kill. they're also capable of greatness and goodness if that side is sort of coaxed out of them. so criminals to me, anyway, are a group of people who have fallen on hard times. i've been there. i've never really done criminal acts, but i've certainly been pushed to limits that could easily become that. i think it's the humanity that is lacking in the courtroom. and i think that a lot of what we see in the justice system today is done because people can do it.
i think as was spoken earlier about trials, people get away with as much as they can. so for the criminal to be the bad guy, what about the politicians in this country? what about all of these other kinds of criminal acts that are going on? i see that there is a lust for power, there is a lust for control, and there is a lust to put the lesser down. it happens a lot in court. and that's what i see. >> we're going to have the opportunity to have you ask questions. so the ushers have cards. so just raise your hand if you'd like to fill out a card, and they will submit them to me and i will ask the questions. john, you know, over time we've seen the portrayals, whether it's -- just take for example the defense attorney. a lot of us grew up watching
"perry mason." you don't see those kinds of movies now it seems to be almost seasonal that you have, you know, either positive or negative portrayals. but it seems to follow a certain cycle. we have so many shows on tv now about, you know, police and law enforcement. i think we have, what, maybe three different "c.s.i. i "series now, "law & order" parts one, two, and three. what do you think counts for the portrayal of our justice system and how it shifts over time? and also if you've seen in terms of what writers have done or haven't done. >> you know, i was -- when i was listening to mr. serra, i was thinking, you know, actually the law is this huge thing.
and there are parts of it that work really well. and when i started out, i was a young lawyer at a large wall street law firm. and believe it or not, we did really good work. and since we typically litigate against or are involved with other large corporate law firms, the other people did railly good work. and since we were typically in federal court, the judges were pretty good. so what i'm trying to say is, is it actually works in some levels. you know? it doesn't work when you get down to the criminal level, when you get down to people who are poor, frankly. you know? there's a strait fiction in the law that mirrors the whole society. anyway. i wanted to say that. i've worked on a bunch of
television shows. i've thought about this question a lot. and i have no idea how this cycle works. but one of the shows that i really enjoyed was "l.a. law." the reason i liked "l.a. law" was that it was about the kind of business of law. you know? a lot of it was about the real, you know, business. you have to work hard in that context to get drama. it's harder to write a show like "l.a. law" because you have to find drama almost in the ordinary practice of law. to my way of thinking, you know, doing a crime show or even a criminal defense show, that's the easy stuff to do. you know? there's drama that's inherent in it. the hard stuff to do is say, like "the paper chase" where they're going to the library. really. so you've got to figure out a way to make that interesting. we did a show called "scavenger
hunt," a massive search through all the libraries. and it's actually a very exciting show. but when we went to the network, they said, what are you shooting? we said we're shooting an episode with seven libraries. and they were like, we got to cancel this. how did osborn get here? you know? that's the hard kind of stuff for television. i'd like to see more of that. i am so sick of "law & order." [laughing] and all of that stuff. i'm not answering the question, but i'm getting stuff off my shoulders. >> let me get something off my shoulder. with no lack of respect. wall street lawyers are serving capitalistic corporations who have taken our democracy in
hostage. you served one dinosaur fighting another dinosaur for the last firms. that is shifting money, you know, from one capitalistic entity to another. so if you think that works, i think it's a manifestation of the malfunction of the entire system. [applause] >> why do i think this audience is going to be on his side? [laughing] i actually -- i don't disagree with what you're saying. but i'm saying, from a functional standpoint it works. i mean, wall street law firms work. they do great work. they do the best practice of law that is done in the country. and if you don't believe that, you're just wrong. [laughing] >> no. the death penalty, appellate lawyers do the best work in the country. their objective is valid. and their industry matches your
industry and the competency that you speak of. >> this could be fun. >> i disagree. >> ok. i think we can agree that, you know, when you're talking about the law, it's really a question of whose interest you serve. and when you talk about, you know, for example, defending poor people or the criminal courts, the resources just aren't there. it is interesting. i met the public defender in england. they told me -- he told me there that an indingon person can go to any of the big law firms, like morris and forestier, and ask them to represent you and the government will pay for it. they will pay every penny. and he told me that they spend something like $1.5 billion
there on representing poor people in criminal cases. and they spend less than a third of that on prosecution. and i said to him, well, you know, what do people say about that? he goes, oh, the prosecutor's always complaining, saying that we're out resourced and it's not fair. but it's just the way it is. because that's the price of insuring that a poor person gets the same amount of justice as a rich person. here, for every dollar that goes 23450 law enforcement -- goes into law enforcement, incarceration, there's probably about five or six cents that goes to representation of poor people in terms of legal rights. so, you know, fundamentally it raises, i think, the discussion here, a very good question. that it comes down to really a question of resources. sheldon, let me ask you. in the stories that you try to tell, there is a moral there.